The History of Medieval Witchcraft

Weavre — merry meet, everyone! Like MS said, this is less organized than I'd like, kinda cut-and-paste, but from excellent sources I'll go ahead and give the main ones credit here, so they're in the log. An article titled Witchcraft by Jeffrey Burton Russell, 1987, from The Encyclopedia of Religion, is the main one. Also important: The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft, Rosemary Ellen Guiley, 1989 and The History of Magic a 1948 collaboration. That last is great, by the way a suitably formidable big black tome I inherited from my Daddy! How much better an image could ya get? Ok, Russell's article discusses 3 kinds of witchcraft, one of which is "us" and two of which are not in his intro, he says, "The term Witchcraft embraces a wide variety of phenomena. The word 'Witch' derives from the Old English noun 'wicca', 'sorcerer' and the verb 'wiccian, 'To cast a spell.' The original concept of witchcraft is sorcery, a web of beliefs and practices whose purpose is to manipulate nature for the benefit of the witch or the witch's client (He later explains that he uses sorcery to refer to natural, traditional, "Primitive" magic like us "witchcraft" will be used here for something else) "quite different phenomena have been called witchcraft."

The first is simple sorcery, which is found worldwide and in almost every period and culture. The second is the alleged diabolical witchcraft of late medieval and early modern Europe. The third is the pagan revival of the twentieth century. This article will distinguish sharply among these three phenomena, because the connections between them are tenuous and few"

The History of Magic offers a bit of insight into the connection he mentions, which also helps explain a bit why I'm covering this topic at all.

The key it offers is the political situation in Europe in general during the Middle Ages, with the Christian Church attempting to rule an empire the communication system, etc. simply didn't allow it to control as well as it wanted. "When the Black Death annihilated whole populations, Satan's rule upon earth appeared unchallenged, and his power undermined the authority of the church. Theology wanted to rule alone, but had found a redoubtable challenger in its own creation." (Since it had created Satan in the 1st place, and insisted people believe in the idea!) Many serf perceived this, but not without satisfaction.

True, the Church united the higher classes with the humble ones Master and servant together sang their pious chants in the chapel of the castle, but the peasants were driven to despair by the increasing disorder and growing oppression one uprising after another had been suppressed bloodily by the united secular and temporal authorities.

Despairing, the serf took refuge in dreams. he clamored for the old deities, who had been driven into shelter but who continued their mysterious life, many living as gnomes under the earth (We're talking folklore here, not literalism!) These had grown very small and very ugly, but they were full of beneficent activities, and they were fond of the humble man whose skin was as brown and wrinkled as their own. Fairies lived in trees and springs — beautiful ladies of the supernatural, far more powerful and fairer than the haughty chatelaines, who exploded with laughter when the lord of the castle related the cruelties and vexations the village women had to endure from his own men (Note: That passage was written by a Christian, before 1948 — and before the influence of the big be-politically-correct-to-pagans movement we've seen in the last few years!)

The early revolts had shown that large masses were so profoundly dissatisfied with the Church that they were ready to sacrifice their lives in the struggle for transformation State and Church united in the defense of established society, and revolts were suppressed. But the desire for a thorough change continued to haunt the humble. In fairy tales, transformation is the main element of the marvelous a pumpkin transmutes itself into a carriage shabby clothes become shining garments, coarse food an exquisite meal. In the fairy tale, the ancient faith survived. The country people clung to these images despite assertion by the priest that they were delusions sent by the devil. The old gods suited the humble people better than the new one, whose representatives were his severe masters and whose symbol was that of bloodshed and suffering even in the confessions of the witches the priests themselves saw resemblances to familiar pagan deities such as Janus and Pan with the devil's establishment of his power (meaning the spread of Christian mythology). The ancient survivals, the amusements of serfs, the most innocent stories, and the women who knew about the old legends and magic traditions were transformed into witches, or evil fairies, as the old stories call them. The traditional gatherings, the Druids' Festival on the eve of May day, the Bacchanals, the Diana feasts, became the "witches' Sabbath", and the broom, symbol of the sacred hearth, though retaining its sexual significance, became an evil tool. The sexual rites of old, destined to stimulate the fertility of nature, were now the manifestations of a forbidden carnal lust.

At the sabbath the peasant was free to do as he pleased. He was feared, also; and in his lifelong oppression, this gave him some dignity, some sense of freedom. Here he could give himself to excitement without the interference of the Church, that wanted to regulate even human emotions. If this was Satanic, the peasant thought, I shall cling to Satan. So, the argument here is that the Christian church created diabolical Satanism, through its dualistic teachings and its oppression of the peasant (necessary to support the feudal system) I generally agree with the argument, and I myself am a bit happily surprised to see such a sympathetic explanation given in the book I described! Anyway, that's the background, the connection between "the Old Religion" and Medieval (sometimes diabolical) witchcraft, which leads to the connection to us. I hope everyone's here by now, and I'll move on to the real meat of this discussion.

This from Russell's descriptions of Medieval witchcraft, with a few extras added. First, where did the idea of demons, the Christian's Satan, etc. come from? The sorcery (indigenous magical practices) of most cultures involved incantations supposed to summon spirits to aid the sorcerer. In many societies the connection between sorcery and the spirits was not explicitly formulated. But in both Greco-Roman and Hebrew thought, the connection was defined or elaborated. The Greeks believed that all sorcerers drew upon the aid of spirits called "daimones" or "daimonia". A Greek "demon" could be either malevolent or benevolent. It could be almost a god (theos) or it could be a petty spirit. In the thought of Plotinus (205-270 CE) and other Neoplatonists, the demons occupied an ontological rank between the gods and humanity. The Hebrews gradually developed the idea of the mal'akh, originally a manifestation of God's power, later an independent spirit sent down as a messenger by God. In Greek translations of Hebrew, mal'akh became "angelos", "messenger". Christians eventually identified "angels" with the Greek "demons" and defined them as beings ontologically between God and humanity. But a different element gained influence through the apocalyptic writings of the Hellenistic period (200 BCE-150 CE): the belief in evil spirits led by Satan, lord of all evil. The idea had limited precedents in earlier Jewish thought, but gained prominence in the Hellenistic period under the influence of Iranian Mazdaism, or Zoroastrianism. Under such influence the Christians came to divide the Greek "daimones" into two groups, the good angels and the evil demons. The demons were supposed to be angels who, under Satan's leadership, had turned against God and thereby become evil spirits. Sorcerers sought to compel spirits to carry out their will, but angels under God's command could not be compelled; thus it was supposed that one practicing sorcery might well be drawing upon the aid of evil demons. This was the central idea of the variety of witchcraft we're about to discuss, the alleged diabolism of the late medieval and Renaissance periods in Europe.

Although simple sorcery had always existed, a new kind of diabolical witchcraft evolved in medieval and early modern Europe. The Christian concept of the devil transformed the idea of the sorcerer into that of the witch, (not modern Wiccan!), consorted with demons and subject of Satan.

Since 1880 this kind of diabolical witchcraft has been subject to four major schools of interpretation. The first, rooted in classical 19th century liberalism, perceived witchcraft as an invention of superstitious and greedy ecclesiastics eager to prosecute witches in order to augment their power and wealth. (This school of thought, in modern version, points out the industry created by the witch-hunts. The whole thing became big business, employing many, many people, ex: the hangman was at one point not allowed to have another job, so he had to survive by making sure there were plenty of executions, etc. Priests, judges, and many others depended on the trials as a vocation.) The second school, that of Margaret Murray, argued that witchcraft represented the survival of the old pagan religion of pre-Christian Europe.

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